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The Start Menu can grow over time to be exceptionally large. Armed with a little knowledge there are easy steps to control or organize its contents.

My Start Menu contains 2-1/2 columns of folders (52) and direct shortcuts (32), but when I right-click on the Start button and then click on Open, nowhere near all of them appear there. I can only see 21 folders and 14 direct shortcuts. I'd like to organize them all into folders and sub-folders like I did on my previous WinME machine. How do I get it to let me see the full contents of the Start menu? Where (and why) are they hiding?

The Start Menu is an interesting beast. It seems to grow forever sometimes as you install new software. There are even situations where it can grow to be bigger than your screen, which can make it difficult to get to all the items on it.

Fully wrangling the Start Menu is fairly straightforward, but requires just a teensy bit of obscure knowledge, and an awareness of a couple of pitfalls.

Oh, and administrative privileges.

That obscure knowledge is actually at the root of the specific question. The Start Menu is created, on-the-fly, from a Start Menu that is specific to the account you're logged in as, merged with a Start Menu defined for "All Users". When you right click on the Start button and select Open, you're only looking at the settings for your login account. If you want to see the rest of your start menu, you'll need to click on Open All Users instead.

It might be more instructive to click on Explore All Users. This way you'll not only see the contents of the folder, but on the left you'll see the directory tree that will show you where everything is, in relationship to everything else.

For example, here's Windows Explorer after I right-clicked on Start, and then clicked on Explore All Users:

Start Menu directory for All Users

Windows Explorer opens up on the following directory:

c:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu

That's the directory that is the "All Users" component of the Start Menu. You can see the "Programs" subdirectory, which corresponds to the "Programs" or "All Programs" item on the Start Menu.

Any folders you create underneath this "Start Menu" directory will appear as new branches within your actual Start Menu. Any shortcuts you create will appear as menu selections within whatever branch corresponds to the subdirectory you create it in.

And since this is the "All Users" branch, then anything you create or change here will affect anyone who logs into this machine on any user account.

If you look closely at the bottom of that image, you'll see there's another directory at the same level as "All Users" called "LeoN" - that's the directory that corresponds to my login account. If we click on it, we see something like this:

Start Menu directory for LeoN

You can see that there's a bunch more stuff within that directory, but that there's also a Start Menu item. Any changes you make within a user-specific Start Menu folder take effect only for that login account.

In my case, you'll see, I have a couple of non-standard sub-folders: "xfer" and "books".

Here's what my start menu looks like:

Start Menu for LeoN

(I use "Classic" start menu style, but the principals apply to both classic and new.)

So when click on Start to open that menu, here's what happens:

  • The items, both subfolders and shortcuts from the "All Users" start menu (from c:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu) are collected.

  • The items, from my "LeoN" start menu (from c:\Documents and Settings\LeoN\Start Menu) are merged in.

  • The resulting combination is display as the menu. "Books" and "Xfer" appear as the result of the settings in my user account's Start Menu, and "Programs" shows up because it's included in both "All Users" and "LeoN".

(At the topmost level, items such as "Documents", "Settings" and so on are not handled this way. They're controlled by other features and settings elsewhere.)

Now, knowing all this, you can manipulate and re-arrange your Start Menu almost to your hearts content by creating or moving the subdirectories and shortcuts within these two folder trees. For example if your start menu is too large, you can simply create a subfolder within it, and then move some of the items into that subfolder. That subfolder and its contents will appear as an additional level within the start menu tree.

The choice of whether to put things in "All Users" or in a specific login account depends on how you use your computer. If, like me, your computers are pretty much single user, then it doesn't matter much which you choose. (As a side note, this is also one of the same choices made when installing a program and it asks if you want it installed for "All Users", or just the current user.)

A couple of caveats:

  • You must have administrative privileges to modify the "All Users" items.

  • Some programs will not uninstall their start menu items properly if you move them within the Start Menu after the program has been installed. In cases like this you may have to remove those items manually.

There are, naturally, other tricks one can play with the start menu, but this first principal of how it's create is both fundamental, and quite powerful.

Article C2604 - March 25, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
Greg
April 3, 2006 9:41 PM

Leo:

This article is very timely for me. I've spent the last month or more gradually reorganising my 'Start menu >All Programs' popup menu. Like you, I am using folders to organise my programs and placing them 'above the line' (the equivalent from your example in mine is folders Books and Xfers).

My question is, do you know why it may take an extraordinary long time to edit the 'above the line' folders in Windows Explorer?

When I'm adding or rearranging programs in my 'above the the line' folder system in Windows Explorer, deleting, renaming and moving files just takes so long. I do have a lot of programs and a lot of folders. I choose to use Windows Explorer in preference to drag and drop and the right-click context menu when I have a lot of editing to do. You'd think it would be faster than drag and drop but it's not.

Any ideas?

herb
May 1, 2006 9:32 AM

General Question/Comment:
I'd like to PRINT some of your items (like this one).
Maybe I'm missing seeing it, but why isn't there a 'Print' option on your pages so's to be able to print JUST the tech info without the
extraneous info on the page.
I appreciate some of your info - hence the desire to print.
Thanks for your consideration here.

Leo A. Notenboom
May 1, 2006 9:37 AM

Good point. It takes a little bit of work, but I'll add it to my to-do list to set something like that up :-).

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